By Soji James, CPT, CSCS
There is an idea embedded in the popular psychology of self-improvement that those who can resist temptation are bound for success. On the other hand, there is also an assumption that some individuals supposedly have “insufficient willpower.” Those who can turn a blind eye to sweets or savory dishes are seen as “ strong,” while their counterparts who can’t stop coming back for additional servings are looked at as being “weak” or “out of control.” This couldn’t be furthering from the truth. Sticking to a nutritional plan may have more to do with keeping a healthy home than it does with any innate tendency toward self-denial.
As science and research are catching up, it’s looking more and more like willpower isn’t the high-powered figure that it’s framed to be. One study involving 2,400 participants measured each individual’s opinion of their own belief to maintain control versus their actual performance in controlled environments through administered tests. It turned out that the people who said that they had the highest levels of self-control weren’t nearly as in control as they thought they were. One possible reason for this is that having high levels of willpower isn’t some innate gift that you are born with; your environment can play a huge role. You can’t eat spoonful upon spoonful of the container of Nutella that you don’t own. Instead of looking to build upon your willpower, it may be easier to start looking at your surroundings.
The key to building the good habits that you want and losing the bad habits that you don’t lie in transforming your environment. Within the contents of your domain lie the invisible hands that guide your actions. Unfortunately, this fact is used against you all the time. Think about when you make a quick stop at the grocery store for a carton of milk, but end up grabbing a chocolate bar because it’s enticingly displayed by the register. Or think about the times that you pulled out your credit card and emptied the bank to beat the time constraints of the last-minute sale to purchase something you know you didn’t need.
But luckily you can use these same tactics to work in your favor when it comes to surviving quarantine. By manipulating your environment, you can ensure that you make healthy decisions to come out of lockdown feeling strong, healthy, and confident. I challenge you to make it easy to stay on track with your health goals by performing a clean up of your kitchen or changing how you organize it.
When it comes to food, it’s really important to leave morality out of the conversation. There are no universally “good” or “bad” foods. Everything has its place in a healthy and enjoyable life. Instead, think of your food choices as either bringing you closer to or further away from your goals. In a lockdown, boredom is likely to strike at some point and idle hands may lead to more refrigerator exploration. So it’s important to make it easy to build the nutritional habits you want and to add friction to the eating habits that you want to get rid of.
One helpful idea for a healthy home makeover is to make a list of “red,” “yellow,” and “green” foods. Your red foods are the ones that present an extremely difficult challenge to resist and don’t provide you with many nutrients. These foods may make you feel good at the moment, but they usually leave you feeling drained, bloated, or generally crummy later on. They usually are highly processed. You may struggle with overeating these foods, and it just may be easier to completely clear your environment of them. The yellow foods are foods that you may have more control with, but they can still cause problems. The green foods are the ones that are nutrient-dense (usually whole foods) and leave you feeling good after consuming them. You can eat them slowly and in controlled portions.
After you have compiled this list, let the purge begin. Get rid of the red foods (you can always donate them to those in need if you feel guilty about throwing them out), decide on how to manage the yellow foods, and then stock up on green foods.
If creating a list and throwing out foods seems like too much, you can always focus on creating a healthy home through organization. To improve the retention of good habits, it’s important to remove friction, making them easier to perform. This could take on a variety of appearances based on what the good habit is. For example, if you want to eat more fruits and vegetables during lockdown, you can put them on display where they are easy to access. If these nutrient-dense foods present themselves as the obvious choice during moments of hunger, your choice is already made for you. Cutting up fruits and veggies so that prep time is minimized is also a great way to ensure that you can easily toss them into salads and smoothies. And if you aren’t throwing out your red or yellow foods I discussed earlier, you can pre-portion them so that you are less likely to over-snack.
The act of eating is a comforting experience that individuals may indulge in to escape feeling a certain way or to create certain emotions. But emotional eating can leave you feeling guilty. During lockdown is a great time to plan a self-care “menu” that will offer you non-food options when emotional hunger kicks in. Menu items could include things such as calling a friend, listening to a podcast, or looking up a quick workout video. It’s important to have this menu done in advance and to put it in a place in your kitchen where you will see it (you know the old saying: out of sight, out of mind). Every time you fight off hunger and choose an option from your non-food menu, give yourself a check or a sticker. Focus on using this tool and watch your victories pile up.
While this whole lockdown situation may be uncomfortable, there’s a lot of good things that can come of it. Creating a healthy home environment, and in turn, increasing your physical and emotional health is a great start.